With his third Larman Clamor full-length in as many years, Hamburg-based singer-songwriters Alexander von Wieding continues the development of his established swampadelic blues aesthetic. Alligator Heart, which is von Wieding‘s second outing through Small Stone, is a somewhat rawer affair than last year’s Frogs (review here) or 2011’s Altars to Turn Blood (review here), but in stripping down some of the arrangements — less organ, more banjo — the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has lost nothing of the rich mood of his prior outings, and indeed only given his songwriting and instrumental performances more space to flourish. Aiding in that as well is the fact that at over 38 minutes, Alligator Heart is the longest Larman Clamor album to date, and though the craft and construction has simplified in some ways, it’s also become more conceptually complex, as the two-part “Aether Bound I: Scorched Earth” and “Aether Bound II: Dust and Ghost” closing duo shows. Offset by catchier songs like “Banshee w’Me” and the grooving “I’m Buildin’ Ruins,” these ideas seem all the more engaging, particularly as they come accompanied by growth in von Wieding‘s vocal approach, which even on the five-minute East-meets-South stomper “She Sent Her Hounds” seems to have embraced more emotional complexity and seems to be in the process of growing beyond the guttural bluesman’s exclamations that have typified Larman Clamor‘s singing to date. As ever, the recording is overarchingly organic, giving a live-from-the-porch vibe — one can almost see the holes in the screen door — and gorgeous visuals also care of von Wieding also accompany, only adding to the completeness of the Alligator Heart package.
Because it has such a cohesive sound throughout, it’s easy to lose sight of some of the complexities in the individual pieces that occur throughout Alligator Heart, but the otherworldly feel that runs a thread (also threat) through each track has been these last several years a big part of what ties Larman Clamor‘s albums together, and the sense from the acoustic-led “Alligator Heart” on is exploratory. Von Wieding strums and feels out the parts after some subdued verses atop a rising bed of distortion, showing a bit of patience in the instrumental second half of the opener while letting “Banshee w’Me” pick up the tempo and provide the first of several landmark hooks that carve a path through the fog-coated bayouscape of Alligator Heart. The only thing missing is handclaps, but one should remember that von Wieding is working with a simpler palette this time around, so some of the flourish that prior albums may have led listeners to expect is replaced by a focus on the hooks themselves. “Banshee w’Me” is all ramble and brash groove, lead lines peppered in with tambourine meter, and leaves a lasting impression that its 1:25 runtime does little to hint at. “Perdition at Dawn” plugs in tight strumming and more blown-out singing with a strong build behind as snare hits come in to punctuate the march. Here, von Wieding sounds confident plucking acoustic notes that if they were played on a sitar you’d call them psychedelic, but it’s ultimately his vocals that carry the piece, and in that too, he’s in top form. His voice sounds less like something put on for the purpose of the tracks than something harnessed in response to a call from them. It’s a bigger difference than you might initially think.
A trio of varied cuts follows to round out side A. “Done No Good” enters sparse with a build around emotive guitar lines that gradually emerges to a Clutch-style groove soaked in psychedelic attitude, while the instrumental “Vines of Yggdrasil” offers hypnotic intertwining layers of guitar once again kept moving forward by a simple beat — repetition mirroring the album opener in the process — while “Been Cookin'” takes a linear progression and gradually turns it into the next trail-marker hook for those making their way through the album front to back. Each song as a personality of its own, but von Wieding draws them all together with his vocals and deceptively intricate guitar work, skillfully making complicated ideas sound easy in a way that would seem to indicate a vision at work going into the writing. As side B gets underway with the is-that-tambourine-or-crickets-chirping “Sambucus Nigra,” the interlude acts as a precursor to some of the more out-there moments still to come as Alligator Heart continues to expand its aural sprawl. “She Sent Her Hounds” follows as the longest cut on the record, built around a straightforward bluesy electric guitar groove over which von Wieding recalls tales of monsters and men. At least until “Aether Bound II: Dust and Ghost” rolls around to its apex, it’s also probably the busiest, but satisfying for all that, and “I’m Buildin’ Ruins” returns to give one last landmark before sending listeners off to meet their fate with “Crow on a Wagon Wheel” and the closing duo, the catchiest of Alligator Heart‘s “big three” choruses having been saved for the last of them. With a banjo line that seems drawn from the echoing 16 Horsepower sphere, “Crow on a Wagon Wheel” gives a contemplative break before “Aether Bound” takes hold to finish out.
Since Larman Clamor has worked so quickly as a project — an album every 11 months since their first, which arrived just half a year after the debut EP (review here) — I’m hesitant to speak in superlatives about the two chapters of “Aether Bound,” which bleed right from the first into the second to form one seven-plus-minute whole, but separated at the end of the tracklisting, they satisfy in a way that von Wieding hasn’t shown much interest in to this point. The build between them, from silence to the album’s most riotous stretches, is complete, accomplished and purposeful, and even the moment when the parts switch from one to the next feels thought out. “Scorched Earth” brings us to a turning point and “Dust and Ghost” picks up from there and maximizes the tension as it turns more and more vehement. There isn’t a payoff as such — that is, von Wieding doesn’t depart the build in favor of some release-point groove — but the tension continues to mount evenly across measures until finally it cuts. A tambourine shake, some fading notes and tape buzz, and the latest installment in Larman Clamor‘s ongoing journey ends as unpretentiously as it possibly could, as though von Wieding thought about keeping the part going and suddenly said, “Nah, that’s plenty.” I suppose it is, with this being the project’s longest outing yet at the aforementioned still-vinyl-ready 38 minutes, but as ever, I’m left after the conclusion of Alligator Heart how the project might continue to develop. After the “kitchen sink” approach of Frogs proved so effective, it seemed to make sense that would continue, but the soul of Alligator Heart is simpler, more straightforward. It asks less of the listener but delivers no less in return, and though speculating on where von Wieding might take the project from here isn’t a mistake I’ll make again, if past is prologue, it won’t be too long before we find out.